Ukraine at D+204: Propaganda as prelude to policy.
N2K logoSep 16, 2022

Ukraine expands its counteroffensive toward Kherson and Luhansk, and finds more evidence of Russian atrocities in recently liberated territories. Russian official media is calling for increased and unrestrained violence against Ukrainians, who, they say, are brainwashed beyond redemption. A major DDoS attack in Eastern Europe is stopped.

Ukraine at D+204: Propaganda as prelude to policy.

Ukraine consolidates control around Kharkiv and opens offensives in Kherson and Luhansk.

Ukraine has executed HIMARS strikes against Russian command-and-control facilities in Kherson (on the Black Sea, east of Odesa) and in the Russian-occupied Luhansk Oblast (where the occupation has been long-standing and hitherto little challenged). What such strikes can do is on display in the recaptured city of Izyum, where the Telegraph describes the effect the rocket fire had on the local Russian tactical command post.

As Ukrainian forces reassert control over the Kharkiv Oblast, they've made the sad discovery of mass graves. The victims buried there were civilians executed by the Russian occupiers; the AP reports that many of the dead are said to bear signs of torture.

Recruiting challenges and reluctant soldiers in the Russian ranks.

The morning situation report from the UK's Ministry of Defence looks at Wagner Group prison recruiting and a move to shorten training periods for officer candidates. "Kremlin-linked Russian private military company Wagner Group has been conducting a campaign to recruit Russian convicts for service in Ukraine since at least July. Prisoners have been offered commutation of their sentences as well as cash incentives. This has been reinvigorated, with recently posted video highly likely showing Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin making a recruitment pitch to prisoners. In the video, Prigozhin emphasises that he is only seeking ‘fighters for assault units’. Separately, Russian military academies are shortening training courses and bringing cadets graduation dates forwards. This is almost certainly so cadets can be deployed to support the Ukraine operation. The impact of Russia's manpower challenge has become increasingly severe. The acceleration of officer cadets’ training, and Wagner’s demand for assault troops suggests that two of the most critical shortages within the military manning crisis are probably combat infantry and junior commanders."

Mr. Prigozhin has been seen, in video whose authenticity was confirmed in an ironic and slantindicular way by Mr. Prigozhin's catering company, recruiting prisoners by promising convicts full pardons in exchange for active service at the front. That's the carrot. The stick is a promise of summary execution if the con-recruits flunk their mission in combat. The Washington Post quotes the video that captured Mr. Prigozhin's pitch to a group of zeks, a collection of yardbirds: “After six months [at war] you receive a pardon, and there is no option for you to return to prison. Those who arrive [at the front line] and say on Day 1 it’s not for them get shot,” That's direct enough.

There's also a secondary, more public appeal to patriotism-as-self-interest. The Post quotes the Wagner Group's boss as saying, "If I were a prisoner, I would dream of joining this friendly team in order to not only redeem my debt to the Motherland, but also to repay it with interest. Those who do not want mercenaries or prisoners to fight … who do not like this topic, send your children to the front. It’s either them or your children, decide for yourself.”

Reports of combat refusals in Russian units continue to surface. Their immediate sources are in Ukrainian military intelligence, and so due allowance must be made for the possibility of wishful thinking or deliberate trolling, but the incidents being reported would do much to explain the generally dismal performance of Russia's combat formations. Newsweek cites Ukraine's assessment: "Servicemen from five tank brigades of the 36th army, which is part of Russia's Eastern Military District garrisoned in the Buryatia republic's capital of Ulan-Ude, refused to take part in the war in Ukraine and were dismissed as a result."

The limits of Chinese support for Russia's war.

Presidents Putin and Xi have been meeting this week in Samarkand. While Mr. Putin has expressed his gratitude for China's "balanced" attitude toward the war in Ukraine, the New York Times reports that he also acknowledged understanding the limits of Chinese cooperation. “We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis,” he said in televised remarks when the meeting opened. “We understand your questions and concerns in this regard.” Those concerns appear linked to the perception, which China shares with every other capable intelligence service in the world, that Russian combat performance has been dismal. Mr. Xi said that China was “willing to work with Russia to demonstrate the responsibility of a major country, play a leading role, and inject stability into a turbulent world.” This is far short of the unlimited cooperation earlier promised, and experienced Beijing-watchers read the statement as an "implicit rebuke."

Russian media calls for taking the gloves off.

No one on the ground in Ukraine, least of all the Urkainian civilians who've endured indiscriminate and deliberate shelling, torture, and massacre from the Russian occupiers, would characterize Russia's war as discriminating, restrained or humane. But that's not the way it looks in the picture Russian official state media are painting. An essay in Foreign Policy argues that "Russian nationalists are braying for blood." This is probably not a sign of dissent among Mr. Putin's supporters, but rather a Kremlin effort to prepare Russia for more sacrifice and a general mobilization.

"Braying for blood" isn't much of an exaggeration. The Rossiya-1 "Sixty Minutes" political talk show provides a representative example of what's being said on Russian television (and credit here to the excellent work of the Russian Media Monitor for bringing these clips to general attention). A recent program is worth quoting at some length, as it offers clear insight into currently influential thinking in Moscow.

The problem, as the Kremlin sees it, is that Russia has been too restrained, too tender, in action against an enemy that's beyond redemption. And that enemy includes NATO, which is an active participant in the war. Senator Igor Morozov of the Duma explained this week, “The phase of us conducting a special operation, while Ukraine and the entire West waged a powerful hybrid war, is over. Today we need to understand the real war is starting. We can’t show mercy to anyone any longer." The Ukrainians themselves are besotted ingrates, unworthy of protection and consideration. "The world we thought we were coming to liberate, thinking we would come to Kyiv and other cities, they were waiting for us and would welcome us, just look at who is fighting in the East, the same Russian world; they were brainwashed. We have to change our own perception with which we entered into this special operation. All of them are fighting against us! We don’t need to think about whom we can protect. We need to protect Russia! We need to save our own people, and to do everything possible to destroy the West, which is today forming units, training that army, supplying them with weapons. We have reached that phase now. This is no longer a hybrid war. This is a real, open, modern war, and we have to be ready for it.” 

State TV Host Olga Skabeeva, who moderates the talk show, interjects, “The Russian people demand harsh, immediate action.”

Professor Alexei Fenenko, a political scientist and international affairs specialist at Moscow State University, explains the American mindset. “In order for us to win, we need to understand the enemy’s mindset. Until we understand his worldview, he would be very difficult to defeat. Here’s how Americans think: either you break another victor’s spine and win, or you prove to him that you’re his equal. Otherwise you’re a nobody. This is the logic of their worldview. Now, back to our special operation. Take a look at how they see us, with their logic. As we look at Mosul, they believe that if you can’t do that to your enemy, you’re a nobody. If you can’t do that, you’re a coward and a loser, and you’re ready to retreat." And the Americans, he said, predictably misread Russian restraint in the early phases of the operation as weakness. “On February 24th, they waited for us to do that to key cities in Ukraine. Then they would have said, ‘Those guys are strong; we shouldn’t mess with them.’ Whether we like or dislike this way of thinking, it is what it is, and that’s the way they see the world. We have to take that into account. When will they start to respect us? When they see their dead soldiers in Ukraine. Only then will they again start to respect us.”

State Duma Deputy Konstantin Zatulin thinks Russia needs to disable Ukrainian infrastructure generally, and not confine its attacks to military targets. “Regarding recent events, including the footage we’re seeing right now, strikes against objects of the critical infrastructure, should have been done earlier. We’ve been saying that the worst thing for us to do would be to think that our time is unlimited to conduct our special military operation.”

Ms Skabeeva agrees: “We’ve been demonstrating humanitarianism for a very very long time. But the time for humanitarianism is over.”

Another Duma member, Oleg Matvechev, offers a take on the rout in Kharkiv. The Russian cat is just toying with the Ukrainian mouse. “When some are trying to incite the panic about losing part of the Kharkiv region, it’s like a cat when he caught a mouse. When he plays with it, it may start to run away, and everyone thinks, ‘Cat, are you not seeing that?’ ‘It ran away!’ But the cat knows he can grab it anytime. Kharkiv will be ours, and all Ukraine will be ours, and Europe will swear allegiance to us. Calm down. Everything will be fine.”

Ms Skabeeva interjects a pious “God willing,” but the allegory is unlikely to comfort the families of the Russian soldiers left behind in Kharkiv.

Military consultant Igor Korotchenko sets a new operational goal: creation of twenty-million refugees. “This is our new reality. We should act fast, be harsh and uncompromising. First of all, we have to scale up the strikes against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, so that region after region, district after district, we plunge Ukraine into darkness. This is an enemy nation. Our goal is to step up our strikes in such a way that by December twenty-million Ukrainians will flee from the territories where they now live and flee west, to the European Union. We need to complete this goal and this task. Perhaps we should openly tell them, ‘Leave. Zelensky is turning this area into real hell. No one knows what will happen here next. Twenty million, go to Europe.’ Region after region, we plunge Ukraine into darkness. This is an enemy nation, the modern Third Reich, and we should act accordingly. There are time-tested recipes of history which the righteousness of our victory demands that we undertake. We move only forward, to our victory."

And State TV Host Olga Skabeeva takes the last word. "It’s time to act,” she says.

Using the dark web for sanctions evasion.

Cybersixgill reports that Russian operators in the dark web are turning their skills at handling contraband to exploitation of the shortages international sanctions have induced in Russia. While it doesn't work for perishables like McDonald's cheeseburgers, it works just fine for durable goods, particularly consumer IT hardware. "Cybersixgill research has found that Russian actors are using the dark web to circumvent sanctions, enabling them to transfer funds and purchase goods from beyond Russia’s borders. Thus, while Russians can no longer enjoy a meal at McDonald’s or a coffee at Starbucks, savvy users of the underground can still get their hands on technology products produced by Apple, AMD, Intel, Microsoft, or Nvidia, even though they suspended sales in Russia and Belarus." Their skills have also proved well-adapted to getting around bans on purchases major bankcards have imposed. "And despite the fact that Visa, Mastercard, and American Express prohibit Russian cardholders from purchasing items outside of Russia, actors on underground forums can procure cryptocurrency or virtual and prepaid credit cards in order to make purchases abroad."

Large DDoS attack stopped in Eastern Europe.

Akamai says that it stopped a record-setting distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack against an unnamed Eastern European customer this week. "On Monday, September 12, 2022, Akamai successfully detected and mitigated the now-largest DDoS attack ever launched against a European customer on the Prolexic platform, with attack traffic abruptly spiking to 704.8 Mpps in an aggressive attempt to cripple the organization’s business operations." The attacker's command-and-control was unusually supple. "The attackers’ command and control system had no delay in activating the multidestination attack, which escalated in 60 seconds from 100 to 1,813 IPs active per minute. Those IPs were spread across eight distinct subnets in six distinct locations. An attack this heavily distributed could drown an underprepared security team in alerts, making it difficult to assess the severity and scope of the intrusion, let alone fight the attack." Akamai offers no attribution, but the target selection and the choice of DDoS as an attack technique are suggestive of recent Russian offensive activity.